“Wow! What an amazing piece of artwork!”
“I’m not that especially artistically talented.”
What is kenkyo?
Kenkyo, which could be defined under the umbrella term of humility in English, is one key concept to understand the Japanese people. Due to behaviors related to kenkyo and its highly-valued natured in society, Japanese behaviors may often be misunderstood by people from foreign countries. In the following, the detailed concept and usage of kenkyo will be presented in order to gain insight into this emic Japanese concept for potentially increasing intercultural understanding.
Kenkyo can be translated into both being humble and modest. In order to explain the differences in Japanese and western contexts. Japanese people usually demonstrate humble behavior when praised by others, whereas those from western countries, who may sometimes be modest, are likely to honestly show pride. Being humble is the means of getting along with others in the community by belittling oneself, by temporarily lowering oneself in the vertical relationship. A case in point is denying praise from others, saying ‘I’m really bad at this’, even though one considers oneself capable. Being modest is preventing oneself from becoming arrogant. For instance, one may accept praise from others by saying ‘thank you’ but he will try not to flaunt himself. This difference of the nuance between the concept of humility (humbleness) and modesty might make it difficult for western and Japanese people to understand each other.
Moreover, this cultural difference is reflected in the way of thinking. For example, people in the West emphasize their success, but Japanese people emphasize their failure. In addition, westerners generally attribute success to one’s own ability or efforts, and failure to the fact that the problem is too difficult, or that one is just unlucky (Miller & Ross, 1975; as cited in Muramoto and Yamaguchi, 1997). In contrast, some reports (e.g., Shikanai, 1978, 1983, 1984; Fry & Ghosh, 1980; as cited in Muramoto and Yamaguchi, 1997) suggest that Japanese people might think the reason for their success was that the problem was not difficult to solve or that they were just lucky enough to overcome the challenge, and that their failures lie in the lack of efforts. As you can see, Japanese people tend to underestimate themselves too much whereas people in the west are apt to self-enhance with the confidence in themselves. In the next section, we take a look at the role and the background of the self-effacement and kenkyo of Japanese people.
Functions of kenkyo
If someone praises you, how will you respond? A typical Japanese person would say, “No, not at all.” Although this way of response may be regarded as unusual in the West, it is natural for Japanese people to lower themselves to appear humble. This is likely because those who show off their abilities are to be excluded from the community. In other words, Japanese culture is traditionally collectivistic, where the harmony of the community is emphasized (but see Matsumoto, 2002, for a “new view” of Japan). Therefore, others’ opinions and evaluations are the center of interest for Japanese people. Indeed, the research of Dalsky (2011) shows that feedback from friends in Japanese diads enhances more self-esteem than self-feedback in Japan, whereas people in the USA demonstrate the opposite result. Where does this unique group-oriented culture come from?
Hara (2013) referred to the theory that Japanese people in the past had to cooperate in agriculture such as in harvesting rice, following the majority even though they had different opinions; if not, they could not live alone at all. For example, families that produced excess harvest were expected to distribute their extra grain to other families that produced less harvest in the year as the custom of a village. Families violating the rule would not be supported by other families any longer even when their harvest was scarce. Moreover, the families would be excluded from almost all the events in the community. This isolation from the community is called mura-hachibu. “Mura” means village and hachibu means eight of the ten important social mores such as ceremonies for reaching adulthood, weddings, childbirths, taking care of the sick, house-constructions, floods, Buddhist anniversaries and travel. Thus, the families that break the harmony of the community would be excluded from these eight social mores. For the remaining two mores, fire and death, they would be supported by other families in order to prevent collateral damage such as spread of fire and diseases.
This kind of isolation is still lingering in modern Japanese society in other forms. One example is among mothers; a mother who often boasts about her son may face social rejection. Rather, mothers complain about their children in conversations in order not to be disliked by other members. Another example is at school; attention seeking students or those who fail to “read the atmosphere” of the class tend to be neglected or bullied by the classmates (kuuki yomani; KY). Also, the Japanese educational system puts more emphasis on getting along with others than on expressing one’s own opinions, which might contribute to the formation of such an atmosphere. In this way, Japanese people avoid such isolation as much as possible by humbling themselves even when praised or when they are really proud of themselves. Therefore, we can say that the role of kenkyo is to maintain the harmony or wa with others (see Dalsky & Su, 2020).
Cases of kenkyo
Case 1: My idot son
Two mothers are talking on the street. Japanese people often speak ill of their own children and well of children of others in order to avoid breaking the harmony. Unlike in the West, boasting about your children is regarded as distasteful in Japan.
Case 2: A trivial gift
Yamada-kun just moved next door to Mizuno-san. He gives her a diary as a present, saying “This is just a trivial gift.” It is natural for Japanese to underestimate the value or features of their own gift.
Dalsky, D. (2011). Effects of communicating success with friends on self-esteem in Japan and the United States. Psychologia, 54(4), 178-189. https://doi.org/10.2117/psysoc.2011.178
Dalsky, D., & Su, J. Y. (2020). Japanese Psychology and Intercultural Training: Presenting Wa in a Nomological Network. In D. Landis, & D. Bhawuk (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Training (4th Edition) (pp. 584-597). Cambridge University Press.
Fry, P. S., & Ghosh, R. (1980). Attributions of success and failure: Comparison of cultural differences between Asian and Caucasian children. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 11(3), 343-363. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022180113007
Hara, S. (2013). Nihonjin no kachikan: Ibunkarikai no kiso wo kizuku [Aspects of Japanese Values: To Consolidate the Foundation for the Application of Different Cultures]. Kamakura Shunjusha.
Matsumoto, D., & Saint-Jacques, B. (2003). The new Japan: Debunking seven cultural stereotypes. Pacific Affairs, 76(3), 465.
Miller, D.T & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82(2), 213. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076486
Shikanai, K. (1978). Effects of self-esteem on the attribution of success-failure. The Japanese Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(1), 35-46. https://doi.org/10.2130/jjesp.18.35
Shikanai, K. (1984). Effects of self-esteem on the attribution of others’ success or failure. The Japanese Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23(1), 27-37. https://doi.org/10.2130/jjesp.23.27
*Special acknowledgement to Tomihide Fuji, student of Kyoto University, for his contribution to this essay and the animations.